BOOK REVIEW: GOD PLAYER by Robin Cook

 

Robin Cook is one of my favourite writers for obvious reasons. He is/was a practising Surgeon who specializes in Ophthalmology (those surgeons who only operate on the eye). By now my followers already know I love doctor-writers. Michael Palmer, Robin Cook, AJ Cronin, Ben Carson, Sigmund Freud, the list is endless. Medical thrillers are my favourite casual reads. In God Player, Robin Cook outdid himself.

In my opinion the book deserves to be in the same class as the author’s bestsellers. His brilliant works; Coma, Brain and Fever rightly belong in this class as well…. Although I found Coma a tad too outlandish and delusional; a third year medical student solving a major medical mystery that even qualified doctors could not solve. Perhaps I am biased by the fact that I read the book when I was already done with medical school. It is my belief that Coma was meant for a more adolescent audience as a source of inspiration. I find it peculiar that the dark Twilight series was also meant for the same audience. I found Twilight to be extremely dark and too close to resembling the actual reality the work of fiction tries to emulate.

Back to God Player…The plot, as customary with the writer in question, is deceptively simple. A hot young trainee (Psychiatry resident) marries a great heart surgeon who dithers in drug abuse which ultimately leads to his demise. Apart from the safe stereotypes of the Psychiatrist as the sappy doctors and the Surgeons as direct servants of God, the book raises a serious and often suppressed fact that mental illness is more prevalent among doctors compared to the rest of professions. Dr. Thomas Kingsley, the self-proclaimed best Cardiac Surgeon in the country (of the United States of Armies), marries the beautiful Psychiatry intern who makes a major shift from Pathology to Psychiatry on account of a debilitating medical disorder (juvenile diabetes mellitus) she knows she will eventually succumb to.

It is deceptive to assume that Cassie is the protagonist of the story. It is actually Thomas who holds that honour. Like most Surgeons he is genital philanthropist and has the temper of big brown bear….who has sex with a lion….and sired the grumpy character in the movie Inside Out. He uses the medical license of his dead former landlord to prescribe narcotic and amphetamine drugs to himself. He hoards bottles and bottles of the orange dynamites in the second drawer of whichever desk he is sitting behind. The sharp intern-wife uses her medical wits to put pieces in the puzzle that has Thomas’ fingerprints all over the place. Add to that a bitchy mother who I assume the Harpers’ mother in Two and a Half Men was based on.

All angles added, Robin Cook deserves a star on my Robin Cook-vs-Michael Palmer contest chart. So far its neck and neck. I still have a lot of reading to do on the long list. I highly recommend this book….especially if you love medical thrillers like I do.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Eyes of the Sphinx by Erich von Daniken

Erich von Daniken is perhaps one of the most controversial writers to have graced our bookshelves in the past century. His works seek to open one’s mind to the possibilities and probabilities that do not seem to have a convincing or conclusive refutation. He specialised in the alien theory; the proposal that we have in fact encountered alien beings who influenced the great marvels sprinkled throughout humanity’s history. He attempts to gather as much evidence as he can to support this theory and this book, The Eyes of the Sphinx, does just that.

In the book, Erich argues that what we have been commonly told about the ancient Egyptians is actually not true. As he propels his argument he takes a dig at the so-called Egyptologists who have established themselves as the unquestioned authority on Egyptian history and archaeology. He ends the book on the same angry note. He has always been very persuasive although he tends to have an irritating penchant for embellishment; a weakness he shares with Dan Brown.

The book is well-written and it absolves my disappointment with his other work, In Search of Ancient Gods, which I found to be poorly written and unconvincing.  In The Eyes of the Sphinx Erich makes reference to works I have actually read myself. He makes reference to the Book of Enoch which also happens to be one of my favourite theological texts. I firmly believe in this book (Book of Enoch) as it is completely consistent with the Holy Bible.

What I also found particularly interesting was the Egyptologists’ response to the book; unreserved revulsion. This is quite telling. Why would they be upset if they actually had evidence of their own to rebut the claims made in the book? I was left with the feeling that the author was justified in his jibe, “The attitude of these Egyptologists is reminiscent of the famous trio of monkeys: They hear nothing, see nothing and say nothing.”

I highly recommend this book, especially for the anarchists among us.

BOOK REVIEW: THE HOUSE OF HUNGER by Dambudzo Marechera

Dambudzo Marechera is my favourite writer of all time. The House of Hunger epitomises what Marechera was all about and the Guardian Fiction Prize of 1979 was just icing on the cake. I have read the book over ten times over the years but I have never gotten round to reviewing it.

The title of the book arises from the novella with the same title which forms the biggest chunk of the book. In addition to the novella are nine short stories all aptly titled to give the reader a snapshot of the writer’s eccentricities. It is definitely not an easy book to review neither is it easy to read. The writer rapes us into journeying through his tormented mind. The title novella itself is hugely autobiographical as the narrator relates his ordeal in war-torn Rhodesia. The first sentence is epic; I got my things and left.What follows is a schizophrenic repertoire of literary genius as the narrator-cum-writer-trump takes the reader through the dusty streets of a black Rhodesia ghetto all the way via hell to his final escape from the house of hunger.

In characteristic Marechera-style, the narrator’s first sex lesson stands out. It is this particular part of the book that lured me to the man. I vividly remember the day our high school English Literature teacher described the scene in a disdainful but proud voice as he attempted to dissuade us from reading that type of Literature. Naturally that gave me the insatiable impetus to read every single word Marechera ever wrote. The sex lesson came as a rude arousal from slumber under his parents’ bed where the narrator had to sleep every night for lack of space. He hears the squeeking of the bed and the tortured breaths of the two custodians of the loins from whence he came. His first attempt of the same act got him a venereal disease; a disease which earns him the rite of passage into adulthood. The whole book reeks of violence. Gunshots are so commonplace it is difficult to hear the small still voice of the drunk and gifted poet. Flora Veit-Wild, Marechera’s biographer and lover, repeatedly clamoured that the author was more of a poet than a prose-writer. I agree. The same could be said of James Joyce whom Marechera emulated and revered.

Had Dambudzo Marechera not tragically died so young in 1987 (at the tender age of 32) I am quite certain every student of English Literature would have hated the man. His work is a nightmare to study. It is convoluted, sprinkled and true. He was a voracious and prodigious reader who wrote exactly what he read after first testing it out on his own life of coarse. The House of Hunger is a brilliant work of art and the best Zimbabwe has ever produced. It is a difficult book to read but very much worth the effort. I dare you to read it.

BOOK REVIEW: ENIGMA by Robert Harris

Between the covers of this book are pages of raw talent. With ENIGMA, Robert Harris has driven me into a rut where every other book I am going to have the misfortune of reading will only pale in comparison to the sheer quality of just this one book.

The plot is deceptively predictable – a genius, young but eccentric mathematician gets a crack at decoding the legendary Nazi naval code Enigma while falling for a sweet but wayward dame who may or may not be a spy. It is the typical plot for this particular genre; a genre built around the complex and by nature illicit art of mathematically decoding codes (cryptanalysis). The young Tom Jericho gets invited back to Bletchley Park (the British spy headquarters for code-breakers) from a sojourn he was forced to take in quiet Cambridge following a nervous meltdown at work. On his unceremonious arrival – as the prodigal weakling – he is shocked to find the the girl he lost his virginity and marbles to, Claire, had literally gone AWOL. He acquires the uncanny assistance of Claire’s roommate Hester in searching for the disappeared lass.

What sets ENIGMA apart from the numerous other books in this genre is the depth of understanding of the science itself exquisitely blended with powerful prose and hints of poetry to create a beautiful work of art. It is lines like, ‘She wore her long, dark hair like a headache….'{describing Hester on page 301) that remind the reader that what they have in their hands is not just a novel but a literary work of art. As I was reading the book I could not help but silently compare it with what I thought was up to that point the best book in the genre, Dan Brown’s DIGITAL FORTRESS. After I read Dan Brown’s book I always felt like the book was well researched and interesting but there was one thing it was missing. I never knew what that thing was till I read Robert Harris’ book. What DIGITAL FORTRESS was missing was Robert Harris.

I highly recommend him.

BOOK REVIEW: NEMESIS by Isaac Asimov

This is by far the most intense scientific work of fiction I have ever read. The genius and prolific Professor of Biochemistry Isaac Asimov outdid himself in this book. It exudes a nostalgic aura of missing one’s future even before one has lived out his present.

The book is set in the third century of this millennium, in a world where technology is only limited by the depths of astrological exploration. Man has set up colonies in space. The ultimate drive of humanity is a way out of Earth or rather OFF it. Our planet has become a cesspit of disease, poverty and anarchy. Only the colonies offer some modicum of peace and order. Societies are once again divided along racial lines with the best of them setting up base in their own ‘world’. Among these many colonies strewn all over the galaxy is Rotor a community of mostly scientists ruled by an astute political visionary by the name of Commissioner Julius Pitt. He sets the ball rolling when his chief Physicist Dr Insigna discovers a planet that can possibly sustain life. He launches a campaign to convince the citizens of Rotor to pack up and go to the dwarf star Nemesis. They agree and they move. The book is essentially about the effects of that move.

The way this simple story is interwoven and well-thought out is outright astounding. It left me asking myself, “Did all this come from just one brain?”. To make things even more interesting if one were to read a good number of Isaac Asimov’s books an obvious trend of dabbling in the prophetic. This book proves just that. It was ahead of its time. In fact I can say, with a heavy helping of imagination, that Isaac Asimov deserves a place right next to George Orwell in the Literature Hall of Fame.

BOOK REVIEW: UP AT THE VILLA – W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of W. Somerset Maugham. Perhaps it is because he tried to pursue a career in Medicine and fell in love with letters along the way. I can relate with that. His work Up At The Villa  however left me worried about this icon. I found the book heavily disturbing. I was as shocked with the book as the New York editor who commissioned the book. It left me wondering, ‘what on earth was Somerset thinking?”.

The book is about the immoral fling a beautiful and young widow has with a broke refugee who turns out to be mortally mentally unwell. The young man is so distraught with the inevitable after-the-one-night-stand rejection that he takes his own life right in front of his ephemeral lover, using her own gun. What is sad about the whole fiasco is that this was the widow’s first one-one stand in her entire life. It is as if the gods were telling the young lass ‘this is not your thing.’ To make matters more complicated she seeks the aid of a common playboy to cover up her mess. As if this was not enough she is tentatively bethroned to a highly successful but much older English diplomat who has a paedophile-type crush on her. Her chance at financial reprieve is brutally crushed after her confession to the the older suitor. In the end she settles for the roughshod Casanova.

Considering that the book was written in early 20th Century England it is entirely plausible that the novella was met with utter disdain upon its publication. It is highly probable that the book’s reception was somewhat similar to the initial reviews Fifty Shades of Grey received upon its release. Both works are an affront to the timeless values of morality that continue to simmer in the psyche of alert readers who open a book for its intrinsic value and nothing more.

My reading of Up At The Villa left me with a feeling of despair for the future of romance in the 21st Century. If such abhorrent ideas could be conceived and well-received in the ‘innocent’ decades of the 20th Century what hope remains for 21st Century literature? As I endured to the end of the book I kept asking myself, ‘is chivalry really dead?’

BOOK REVIEW: CAKES AND ALE (or The Skeleton in the Cupboard) by W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

This book is a masterpiece. It is a short but powerful amalgamation of every literary technique all writers of great genius exploit to the maximum. Romance (both moral and immoral), humor (both satirical and plain) and tragedy (both ephemeral and evolving) are neatly blended into a fluid tale of what it really means to be an author.

The protagonist, Dr Ashenden, describes his transition from meek teenager to medical student to under-appreciated author. In fact it is difficult to pin-point who the protagonist is. An argument can be made that the narrator of the story (Ashenden) is not in real fact the protagonist but rather Rosie and Ted Driffield combined. Rosie is obviously the epicentre of the romantic aspect of the book – a role she played rather well – while Ted is the oasis of intellectualism which I always find refreshing in a proper book. Intellectualism is actually given in double measure, the other being the wild intellect of the young author Ashenden. Rosie somewhat comes in the middle; she is Ted’s promiscuous wife who Ashenden had an affair with – along with a whole train of other men of course.

Ted’s second wife only plays an auxiliary role in the story. Alroy Kear is a powerful character created by a sound mind fighting against vanity. He is a self-but well-groomed author who takes pains not to offend anyone and an embodiment of what the author obviously hates in other authors of similar nature. I found it interesting that the publication of the book raised a huge furore in the literary world as it was widely viewed as an attack of Thomas Hardy in the form of Ted Driffield. I think the critics were just intimidated by the wit and beauty of the book so much that they felt such a work of art would not come purely from an abstract mind without contemporary influence. I will come to a defense of the author at this point. It is a fact that no book has ever been written from an abstract mind. A story is built on a skeleton formed by experience and knowledge. The skeleton in this masterpiece happens to be that one woman every man has buried in the inner closets of his past and never wants to see. That skeleton is Rosie and she is hidden in a cupboard called Ashenden. Ted and the other authors were just the flesh that covered the beauty of this literary classic.

Cakes and Ale is by far the best literary work of fiction I have read this year. I highly recommend it.

BOOK REVIEW: NATURAL CAUSES by MICHAEL PALMER

If you have read any of Michael Palmer’s books and have an aversion to surprises then this book is perfect for you. Just like all the other works by the author the book follows the typical ‘hot-shot doctor who is framed for medical negligence and seeks revenge while falling unexpectedly in love’ plot.

The ‘hot shot’ doctor in this book is Sarah Baldwin a resident in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Medical Center of Boston who also has had impressive alternative medicine training. The hospital at which she works is ridiculed by a local newspaper columnist who has a vendetta against everything the hospital stands for; a blend of scientific and alternative medicine. Three patients die under exactly the same circumstances and the only connection among them is Sarah’s alternative medicine prescriptions. She seeks vengeance and pacification all the while falling in love with her attorney. The ending is as much surprising as it is heart-wrenching.

Michael Palmer, just like his rival Robin Cook, was an accomplished physician who blended his diverse medical knowledge with drama to produce multiple novels which have shaped the course of the medical thriller genre. It is difficult to analyse the author without comparing him with Cook just as it is exacting to review Isaac Asimov without collating his works with those of Arthur C. Clarke . All four however have oftentimes been caught up with the redundancy that bedevils serial writers.Natural Causes bares testimony to that. It is in itself a good thriller provided you have not read any of Palmer’s other books.

BOOK REVIEW: MASTER GEORGIE by BERYL BAINBRIDGE

Beryl Bainbridge is the type of author one comes across and instantly falls in love with. I had never heard of her and my reading ‘Master Georgie’ was an appointment with Fate that I never knew I was late for.

The book is an exposition of unrequited love, debased sexuality and forced patriotism all blended to form an intellectual and emotional masterpiece that stands far above contemporary literary works. It has two protagonists; Dr George Hardy a Surgeon and photography enthusiast and Myrtle the orphan whose age and surname no one really knows for sure. The two’s relationship forms the dynamics of the story and can be best described as the tale of a young girl in love with her adoptive brother who dithers on the brink of homosexuality and alcoholism. The other characters (Dr Potter the irritatingly academic geologist and Pompey Jones the handsome street urchin) serve to cushion the heavy glut of tragedy that oozes from each page.

The literary style is clean and lean. The use of words is so well placed one gets a feeling that the author wrote and re-wrote the book until the English language itself gave in to her whims. Humor is definitely not in short supply in this work of art though it will take the average reader considerable effort to glean from the novel. ‘Master Georgie’ has dispelled my previously drab notion that literature is dead and has been replaced by pulp novels with no depth and inspiration.

It is said Bainbridge herself proclaimed that the book has to be read at least three times for one to fully understand it. Perhaps she was right but to me it will take only half a reading to appreciate its sadistic beauty. I was thoroughly impressed and would recommend it to anyone who truly loves literature for literature’s sake.

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